By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 4, 2006
So here they were again, trailing by multiple runs in the late innings and having shown few signs of generating a rally. A starting pitcher had silenced them, needing just a few minutes each inning to retire the side on a collection of harmless bouncers.
The Washington Nationals had engineered startling comebacks in each of the previous three games, but yesterday at RFK Stadium, another response seemed all so implausible.
It started with a bunt by a newly acquired outfielder and by the time the eighth inning had ended, the Nationals had done it again, scoring four times to subdue the Arizona Diamondbacks, 5-3, and sweep the weekend series.
"As long as you have an out left, you have a chance to win a ballgame," Manager Frank Robinson said. "That's a good lesson for a young ballclub -- just keep battling, keep battling, keep battling and some good things can happen to you or for you."
Lately, each game seems to play out in eerily similar style. On Thursday the Nationals scored twice in the ninth against the Phillies and then won it in the 10th. After Friday's rainout, they overcame a five-run, eighth-inning deficit in Saturday's early game and beat the Diamondbacks in the 11th, then followed with a three-run uprising against Livan Hernandez in the nightcap to steal another win.
Yesterday, before an announced crowd of 30,771, Washington made its move in the eighth, turning a two-run deficit against nearly untouchable starter Brandon Webb into a two-run lead to extend its winning streak to four and improve its two-year home record against Arizona to 6-0.
Webb had retired 13 in a row and 19 of 20 when Nook Logan, acquired from Detroit last Friday, led off with a bunt single along the first base line. Pinch hitter Ryan Church walked and after Alfonso Soriano struck out for the third straight time, Felipe Lopez singled past the shortstop to drive in Logan and cut the deficit to 3-2.
Ryan Zimmerman followed with a single to left, bringing home pinch runner Henry Mateo. Nick Johnson was intentionally walked and Austin Kearns, who smashed a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning late Saturday, doubled to the right-center field wall on a 3-2 pitch.
"With Webb, you just hope he makes a mistake and leaves it up because when he keeps his sinker down, he's as good as there is," Kearns said of Arizona's starter, who entered the game with a 14-5 record and a 3.02 ERA, third best in the National League. "The guys feel like if we're in striking distance late in the game, we can get it done."
Clutch hits in consecutive games have lifted Kearns's spirits after he struggled to make an impact since his arrival from Cincinnati in mid-July. He now has 14 RBI in his last 13 games.
"It's good to see that," Robinson said. "That has to be a positive for him, make him feel good, and maybe this is exactly what he needed -- not just base hits but some big base hits that can make him feel like he is contributing to this ballclub."
Added Kearns: "When there's an opportunity like that, I want to be up there. I don't care if I've been in a slump or swinging the bat well. It's just something you build on and hopefully it will carry over."
Prior to the eighth, the Nationals had gotten nowhere against Webb. They did manufacture a run in the first when Soriano led off with a single, stole second -- his 36th -- and later scored on Kearns's two-out single.
From that point until the late rally, however, all Washington could muster was Zimmerman's infield hit in the third. Through seven innings, the Nationals had only gotten three balls out of the infield, all simple fly outs.
And then it started.
"They key was the bunt," Soriano said of Logan's leadoff spark. "That's when I start to think we can score some runs and win the game."
Webb's counterpart, Tony Armas Jr., had kept the Nationals in the game with a strong effort, getting into the seventh inning for the first time in nearly a month. In his previous two starts, Armas had allowed 18 hits and 10 earned runs in five total innings.
Yesterday, he permitted Chad Tracy's homer in the fifth to tie the game at 1 and fell behind an inning later on Conor Jackson's sacrifice fly.
In the seventh, he departed after a walk and a sacrifice, then watched Orlando Hudson's two-out RBI single off reliever Ryan Wagner widen Arizona's lead to 3-1.
Wagner (3-2) escaped further trouble in the eighth and then let his teammates seize the lead. Jon Rauch, closing in place of Chad Cordero, who had pitched in both of Saturday's games, breezed through the ninth for his first career save.
"Hey, you never know," Armas said of his team's recent comebacks. "I always trust that offense. We have good hitters here. Everybody doesn't believe in them, but there's some great guys out there."